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Contentions

Can a Sacred Text Be Secular as Well?

The debate over the Ten Commandments is firing up again. Writing for the New York Times’s website earlier this week, veteran legal commentator Linda Greenhouse warns of “the continuing effort by state and local governments to post the Ten Commandments in public places,” as well as an upcoming attempt to overturn the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 ruling of 2005 that barred the posting of the Ten Commandments before two Kentucky courthouses.

At the heart of these new legal efforts is a caviat written into Justice Souter’s 2005 decision that seems to open the door for such displays if they are intended for a secular purpose — a sentence that many people, Ms. Greenhouse writes, wrongfully took “as a green light for gaming the system.” The Court, Souter wrote, did not “have occasion here to hold that a sacred text can never be integrated constitutionally into a governmental display on the subject of law, or American history.” The problem is not in the Ten Commandments themselves, we learn, but in the real intentions behind putting them on display — whether they be “secular” or “sectarian.”

Like many Americans, Ms. Greenhouse bristles at such a loophole, mainly because of how hard it is for her to imagine the Bible representing anything other than religion. “The prospect of watching lawyers and justices engage in still more contorted efforts to attach supposedly secular meaning to obviously sectarian objects and texts,” she writes, “is not a pleasant one.”

But is this fair? Can’t the Ten Commandments — indeed, the Bible as a whole, with its thousand pages of ancient stories, speeches, poems, proverbs, laws, and histories — have secular meaning?

For nearly two decades I’ve lived in Israel, where the Bible is seen very differently. A country founded on an ultra-secular socialism refused to cut itself off from the Jewish people’s ancient textual heritage. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, himself fully secular, held Bible-study groups in his home and encouraged Israelis to read the Bible at every opportunity, without promoting any form of religious worship or observance. Today every Jewish IDF soldier gets a copy of the Bible upon completing basic training; and every Jewish high-schooler is required to study the Bible as a central part of the curriculum. Biblical idioms and allusions are found throughout secular culture, from music to literature to film. And when a nonobservant student took third place in this year’s national Bible quiz, his mother — Sarah Netanyahu, wife of the prime minister — proclaimed it as a lesson for all secular Israelis: that the Bible belonged to them no less than to the religious.

Could such an attitude gain traction in America? Many will be quick to point out that Israel doesn’t have a separation of church and state — the result of which is that an inflexible ultra-Orthodox minority continues to foster deep resentment, much of it justified, among the secular majority because of the rabbinic monopolization of marriage and divorce, burial, and conversions.

But this argument fails when looking at the role of the Bible in Israeli life, for the simple reason that, unlike Ms. Greenhouse, most Israelis don’t see the Bible as an “obviously sectarian” text all. They see it, rather, as a national treasure, a basis of identity, a rich collection of ancient writings that is of interest not so much because of its authority as much as for its wisdom and testament to a unique cultural heritage. In other words, they see it as a secular text — much as Americans view the Federalist Papers or the Declaration of Independence.

Ms. Greenhouse, of course, is far from alone among Americans in seeing the Bible as having “obviously sectarian” symbolism and nothing else — an attitude that effectively grants exclusive ownership of the Bible to the religious establishment. But there is another secular America, one that longs for fresh readings of our ancient texts without either the axiomatic assumption or the explicit repudiation of faith. Bestselling authors like Bruce Feiler, Karen Armstrong, and Jack Miles have succeeded precisely because they meet a growing demand for sympathetic yet non-faith-based readings of the Bible. Far from being a legal loophole, Justice Souter’s words suggest an acute longing that many Americans share for an approach to sacred texts that on the one hand protects our modern sensibilities — especially our right to a self-defined spirituality — while giving us access to something we suspect may possess far more cultural wisdom than we have been led to believe, something that lies at the core of Western identity, something that continues to resonate regardless of our faith.

The Bible is not just a sacred text. It’s also a major pillar of our civilization — no less so than the works of ancient Greece, Enlightenment Europe, or the American Founders. Biblical stories and figures were invoked in every successful progressive movement in American history, from the Revolution to Emancipation to women’s suffrage to the civil rights movement. To presumptively dismiss public presentation of the Bible’s most famous encapsulation, the Ten Commandments, as “sectarian” is to cut ourselves off from this great fountainhead of wisdom, history, and self-understanding that we desperately need in our constant search to understand what the experiment of modern democratic life is really all about.

My new book, The Ten Commandments, takes this ball and runs with it. It hits bookstores next week.



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